Can introverts succeed in business?

A few years I had a performance review in which I got heavily criticized for “not appearing engaged enough” in meetings and other social situations.  As an extreme introvert (by Meyers-Briggs standards), I often find it difficult to relate to a large room filled with very exuberant and outgoing people.  And while it’s far from being debilitating, my penchant for listening rather than talking has at times, as in the case of my former manager, earned me a reputation as aloof and unengaged, when in reality I’m simply listening rather than talking.

I spent a long time trying to change, until a subsequent manager helped me remember that each person is different and that the better  manager tries to mold themselves to their people, not the other way around.  This is not to say that I didn’t make my fair share of mistakes in that previous role – I did, many times over – but I came to realize that my former manager also missed a few opportunities to relate to me more successfully.

That story came back to me yesterday when I stumbled across a post by Carl King on the 10 Most Common Myths About Introverts.  As a strong introvert, I definitely related to all ten of his points, none more than the last one:

Myth #10 – Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts … A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers. That being said, there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts. (Yes, I reversed these two terms on purpose to show you how biased our society is.)

It got me to thinking about the difference between introverts and extroverts in the enterprise setting.  I don’t know whether it’s that we expect our leaders to be outgoing and charismatic or whether the outgoing and charismatic are the best at positioning themselves for advancement.  Regardless, it seems that too often the strong introverts are, for whatever reason, overlooked.  A recent study published in Harvard Business Press points to the necessary balance between introverts and extroverts on teams.

A new study finds that extraverted leaders actually can be a liability for a company’s performance, especially if the followers are extraverts, too. In short, new ideas can’t blossom into profitable projects if everyone in the room is contributing ideas, and the leader is too busy being outgoing to listen to or act upon them.

An introverted leader, on the other hand, is more likely to listen to and process the ideas of an eager team. But if an introverted leader is managing a bunch of passive followers, then a staff meeting may start to resemble a Quaker meeting: lots of contemplation, but hardly any talk. To that end, a team of passive followers benefits from an extraverted leader.

So it seems that the best teams benefit from the mix between introverts and extroverts.  The problem, of course, comes when it’s only the introverts that recognize and promote the introverts, leading to silos of introverts and different silos of extroverts.  Put another way, you get one group that only wants to think and plan and another group that is all to eager to execute, regardless of the level of planning involved.  Each type brings a much needed skill – and check and balance – the other other.

Once I found my place in a team that recognized – and even encouraged – my personal style, I can say that I found a place where I could chase my successes.


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  1. #1 by Max on May 19, 2011 - 9:56 am

    I have really been thinking about what you’re wrestling with here. I have re-read it a couple of times since you posted it. As an introvert, I have found that there are some hurdles to overcome both in the broad category of “business” and in the smaller skill-set of leadership.

    A few thoughts, for what they’re worth. The first is that, in the general area of business, complete silence in group settings can lead to “transference”. That can be either good or bad depending on what’s already going on in the minds and psyches of the people around you. Transference basically means that if you say nothing and reveal nothing, people are going to transfer their fears and dysfunctions onto you. In the same meeting, having heard and seen the same things, different people will assume very different things about what you are thinking and then will often act on those assumptions. Amazingly, all of the assumptions that a group is transferring onto you can be wrong, and the resulting actions can be detrimental to the group and to you personally. Some might think, “Oh, he is such a wonderful listener and calm presence”, while what’s really going on inside is that you’re actually losing your mind and overloading at the amount of dysfunctional emotional energy being poured out by the extroverts and histrionics in the room. And the neurotics in the same room might be thinking, “He must not be saying anything because he thinks my ideas are dumb and that he thinks he’s too smart to even respond to them.” And at the same time, your boss might be thinking, “This guy’s unprepared again and not connected to the group process.” All of them would probably be wrong and yet all of them would probably respond out of whatever they are transferring onto you. As an introvert, I know that you are probably just trying to work out in your head what you’re hearing so that when you actually do say something, it’s a finished product, and not just a bunch on off-the-cuff mishmash. But transference is a reality.

    Another thought, from a leadership standpoint, is that our silence can be interpreted as risk-aversion, and that is a very bad thing to have interpreted about us in a cutting-edge business environment. It’s still an example of transference, but it can be a career killer. And we have to self-check to make sure that the reason we aren’t speaking really is a processing thing and not a fear of failure thing. If we’re lying to ourselves, we have an integrity gap that needs to be bridged.

    Lastly, there are a lot of leadership activities that we can be active in that are on the group maintenance side of the leadership scale instead of the task completion side. Even if we’re not ready to put our idea out there, we can be encouraging and validating the ideas of others, checking the temperature of the group, etc so that we are engaging with the group in a way that helps the group function better and helps us avoid deadly transference. That being said, introversion cannot be an excuse for coldness. If we want to lead successfully, we must be basically warm people who are known to be looking out for the good of others even when no one is looking. Coldness and introversion are not the same thing. Basically cold people are bad leaders, in my estimation and humble opinion. People pick up on coldness quickly and they don’t trust it. And trust is everything in leadership. Effective self-disclosure is an important part of being warm. If our silence is being interpreted as coldness and we do not want to come across as cold, then we need to work on what we are projecting and find some non-verbal means to convey warmth even when we’re not talking. And if we are actually cold…well…I guess that would be something we need to legitimately work on. People respond positively to warmth expressed verbally or non-verbally. IMHO.

    Thanks for posting this. It really made me think about how I am coming across and how my own introversion might be perceived in my environment.

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